Let’s light up palm oil history

  • Opinion
  • Saturday, 11 Feb 2017

Malaysian palm oil closed higher on Friday, reversing earlier losses, as traders squared positions ahead of the weekend and as low stock levels supported the market.

The industry’s centenary this year is a learning opportunity not to be wasted

THE Malaysian palm oil industry turns 100 this year. Pinpointing the start of an industry this old is often tricky, but in this case, the birth is widely recognised as the first time that oil palm was planted commercially in this country.

That was in 1917. The birthplace was Tennamaram Estate in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor, and the man responsible was a planter from France named Henri Fauconnier, who later became an award-winning writer.

Sime Darby Bhd now owns the plantation. Batang Berjuntai, from a Malay term that’s usually translated as dangling branch or stick, has been given a less suggestive name – Bestari Jaya.

And of course, palm oil has become a cornerstone of the Malaysian economy, a significant factor in the capital market, and one of the country’s sociopolitical levers. It’s certainly a birthday worth celebrating.

Yes, it’s nice and appropriate to organise some merrymaking to commemorate the centennial, but what’s more likely to have a lasting impact is solid and searching storytelling on how the industry has grown to be what it is today.

This can be in many forms (books, articles, TV segments and shows, documentaries, short videos, talks, panel discussions, exhibitions, websites) as long as it helps people understand what it took for oil palm to progress from decorative plant to Malaysia’s golden crop.

On one level, the industry’s story is not very different from those of other industries. Palm oil has become big as a result of hard work, innovation, foresight, sound strategies, entrepreneurship, government support and, sure, luck.

But when we look closer, we’ll see that Malaysia’s experience with palm oil is a treasure trove of unique lessons.

For example, before oil palm took over as the country’s dominant cash crop, there was rubber.

The pivot from rubber to oil palm is a fascinating tale of threat transformed into opportunity, of adaptability paving the way for prosperity.

The transition to oil palm was also boosted by the drive to lift the fortunes of the rural poor through the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda).

With more and more settlers on the Felda schemes cultivating oil palm, it surpassed rubber in 1989 as Malaysia’s main economic crop.

By itself, Felda’s 60-year history is already a powerful saga of government intervention and human endeavour.

The longevity of some of our plantation players gives us another rich source of wisdom, anecdotes and records relating to the palm oil industry.

And there are many other palm oil-related institutions in the private and public sectors that have been around for decades. What they’ve done and gone through, can go a long way in preparing us for the years ahead.

It’s a shame if there’s no attempt to highlight and explain key industry developments and their consequences. It’s equally important to showcase the contributions of pioneers and leaders in palm oil.

A 100-year journey surely has its share of wrong turns and casualties, and these should not be swept under the carpet. Sometimes we learn more from failure than from success.

No matter how old, no industry is free of challenges. The global sustainability agenda demands that palm oil growers convince people that the business does little harm to communities and the environment. The industry’s productivity levels have been stagnant for a long time; a breakthrough is much needed.

This is yet another reason for a long, retrospective look at the last 100 years of palm oil. The answers to a brighter future may well lie in the past. To search, we must first illuminate history.

Executive editor Errol Oh has a soft spot for the palm oil industry. His late father had worked only in plantations.

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